Richard Stockton (October 1, 1730 – February 28, 1781) was a delegate from New Jersey who was selected to replace the New Jersey delegates from the Second Continental Congress. Stockton also served as a jurist and legislator and was instrumental in bringing John Witherspoon from Scotland to the 13 original colonies to serve as President of New Jersey College. He was also close friends with fellow signers Benjamin Rush from Pennsylvania. The other Second Continental Congress delegates from New Jersey were: John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, and Abraham Clark.
Early Life and Career
Richard Stockton was born in New Jersey on October 1, 1730 to John Stockton. John was the founder of the College of New Jersey and was able to give his son a great education that created opportunities. young Richard attended the academy of Nottingham and the College of New Jersey. He went on to study law under David Ogden who was the most prominent lawyer in the area. He was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-four and quickly gained a reputation for being an excellent attorney. He married Annis Boudinot and had six children. Annis was known for her poetry.
During this time Richard made many influential friends. He was a long-time friend of George Washington and had a close relationship with Benjamin Rush. It was his unique relationship with Rush that led to the acquisition of John Witherspoon. Witherspoon was given the position of President of the College of New Jersey and made it a university that rivaled Harvard and Yale. He also had friendships with James Madison and Aaron Burr. Even though he had many friends of influence and was considered one of the brightest attorneys in the Middle Colonies, Stockton had no use for politics and displayed a distrust in the public. It would be the Stamp Act that would begin to push him into politics.
Stockton was a moderate at the Second Continental Congress and disagreed with the more extreme points of both views. He wanted reconciliation, but he saw the reality of independence. He was more of a realist in a convention full of idealist and was not easily taken in by their rhetoric. He struggled with how they would pay for the war, raise an army, support an army, and govern themselves. These were all things that needed to take place before independence could be declared. He drafted a plan to give the colonies their independence without renouncing the British crown. King George III rejected it. This took place in 1774 and by 1775 Stockton was now in favor of independence.
The Capture of Richard Stockton
During the American Revolutionary War, Stockton was elected to serve as the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. He did not take the appointment and wished to remain in Congress to help further the cause of liberty. After the Declaration of Independence had been penned by Thomas Jefferson and edited by the committee it needed to be signed. Richard Stockton would become the first to sign the Declaration of Independence.
He would pay the price for placing his signature on that document.
The Continental Congress sent George Clymer and Richard Stockton to Fort Ticonderoga, Saratoga, and Albany to help the Continental Army. On his return to the Continental Congress he took a detour and visited his friend John Covenhoven. His intent was to evacuate his family to safer territory and away from the British army. That plan was foiled when he and John were captured by loyalists. Stockton was stripped of his property and sent on a forced march to Perth Amboy. It was Perth Amboy where he was given to the British. General William Howe offered Stockton and other prisoners a free pardon if they were renounce the Delcaration of Independence and swear allegiance to the King. Stockton refused. Shortly after he was beaten, interrogated, and intentionally starved. His old friend, George Washington, negotiated his release, but Stockton’s health was already destroyed. He was required to sign a paper that would forbid him to help the war in any way after his parole. Upon his release he resigned from Congress in 1777 and according to his close friend Benjamin Rush it took him two years to fully regain his health.
In the last years of his life Stockton was tried in the court of public opinion as to whether or not he took an oath to the King for his release. John Witherspoon quickly dispersed these false accusations. Stockton returned to civilian life and tried to restart his practice and train new students. He was successful for a short-time, but he developed lip cancer which then spread to his throat and took his life. He never saw the country he sacrificed so much for gain its independence or set up a new form of government.
Samuel Smith said this about Richard Stockton at his burial:
“Behold, my brethren, before your eyes, a most sensible and affecting picture of the transitory nature of mortal things, in the remains of a man who hath been long among the foremost of his country for power, for wisdom, and for fortune; whose eloquence only wanted a theatre like Athens, to have rivaled the Greek and the Roman fame; and who, if what honors this young country can bestow, if many and great personal talents, could save man from the grave, would not thus have been lamented here by you. Behold there ‘the end of all perfection.’
“Young gentlemen, (the students of the college,) another of the fathers of learning and eloquence is gone. He went before in the same path in which you are now treading, and hath since long presided over, and helped to confirm the footsteps of those who were here laboring up the hill of science and virtue. While you feel and deplore his loss as a guardian of your studies, and as a model upon which you might form yourselves for public life, let the memory of what he was excite you to emulate his fame; let the sight of what he is, teach you that every thing human is marked with imperfection.
“At the bar he practiced for many years with unrivalled reputation and success. Strictly upright in his profession, be scorned to defend a cause that he knew to be unjust. A friend to peace and to the happiness of mankind, be has often with great pains and attention reconciled contending parties, while he might fairly, by the rules of his profession, have drawn from their litigation no inconsiderable profit to himself. Compassionate to the injured and distressed, he hath often protected the poor and helpless widow unrighteously robbed of her dower, hath heard her with patience, when many wealthier clients were waiting, and hath zealously promoted her interest, without the prospect of reward, unless he could prevail to have right done to her, and to provide her an easy competence for the rest of her days.
“Early in his life, his merits recommended him to his prince and to his country, under the late constitution, who called him to the first honors and trusts of the government. In council be was wise and firm, but always prudent and moderate. Of this be gave a public and conspicuous instance, almost under your own observation, when a dangerous insurrection in a neighboring county had driven the attorneys from the bar, and seemed to set the laws at defiance. Whilst all men were divided betwixt rash and timid counsels, he only, with wisdom and firmness, seized the prudent mean, appeased the rioters, punished the ringleaders, and restored the laws to their regular course.
“The office of a judge of the province, was never filled with more integrity and learning than it was by him, for several years before the revolution. Since that period, he hath represented New-Jersey in the congress of the United States. But a declining health, and a constitution worn out with application and with service, obliged him, shortly after, to retire from the line of public duty, and hath at length dismissed him from the world.
“In his private life, he was easy and graceful in his manners; in his conversation, affable and entertaining, and master of a smooth and elegant style even in his ordinary discourse. As a man of letters, be possessed a superior genius, highly cultivated by long and assiduous application. His researches into the principles of morals and religion were deep and accurate, and his knowledge of the laws of his country extensive and profound. He was well acquainted with all the branches of polite learning; but he was particularly admired for a flowing and persuasive eloquence, by which lie long governed in the courts of justice.
“As a Christian, you know that, many years a member of this church, he was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. Nor could the ridicule of licentious wits, nor the example of vice in power, tempt him to disguise the profession of it, or to decline from the practice of its virtues. He was, however, liberal in his religious principles. Sensible, as became a philosopher, of the rights of private judgment, and of the difference in opinion that must necessarily arise from the variety of human intellects; he was candid, as became a Christian, to those who differed from him, where he observed their practice marked with virtue and piety. But if we follow him to the last scene of his life, and consider him under that severe and tedious disorder which put a period to it, there the sincerity of his piety, and the force of religion to support the mind in the most terrible conflicts, was chiefly visible. For nearly two years be bore with the utmost constancy and patience, a disorder that makes us tremble only to think of it. With most exquisite pain it preyed upon him, until it reached the passages by which life is sustained: yet, in the midst of as much as human nature could endure, he always discovered a submission to the will of heaven, and a resignation to his fate, that could only flow from the expectation of a better life.
“Such was the man, whose remains now lie before us, to teach us the most interesting lessons that mortals have to learn, the vanity of human things; the importance of eternity; the holiness of the divine law; the value of religion; and the certainty and rapid approach of death.”